Bear’s Owners Open Chango Rosa In Union Station

Bear's Smokehouse's smoked meats are about to find their way into tortillas, empanadas, tamales and pupusas.

Jamie and Cheryl McDonald's next concept, Chango Rosa (or "Pink Monkey") will take over Hartford's iconic former Hot Tomato's restaurant at Union Station, offering a menu of Latin comfort fare inspired by Central and South American street foods. The restaurant has scheduled its grand opening for June 3 at 11 a.m.

McDonald signed a lease in early 2016 to offer food and beverage at kiosks within Union Station's Great Hall, and envisioned a smaller version of the menu there, with barbecue-influenced tacos and small plates. When Hot Tomato's closed in January 2017, he saw an opportunity to do something bigger, and signed a lease to take over the space that had housed the Italian restaurant brand for more than three decades.

Chango Rosa will have indoor seating for 240, with private event space for up to 80, and a patio will seat another 70 guests. The team will be able to execute events at the Great Hall for up to 750 people, said Cheryl McDonald.

"We have an opportunity to revive this space," she said. "We were already committed to try to bring stuff to the Great Hall, but this, especially, is expanding the banquet offerings that we could do."

Chango Rosa aims to present an affordable, fun and relaxed dining option, Jamie said, with items ranging from about $3 to $9. Tacos, on freshly made tortillas made with house-ground masa, feature fillings like carne asada with corn salsa, pulled tamarind barbecue pork with kimchi, spit-roasted al pastor with pork belly, chilled tri-tip with avocado mousse, crispy calamari and smoked beets with feta and pea salsa verde.

The menu also features empanadas with chicken, pork and mushrooms; pinchos, or skewers of grilled meats and fish; pupusas, arepas and nachos with pulled pork, guacamole and Bear's sriracha BBQ sauce. Small plates and sides include octopus carpaccio, stuffed jalapeños, masa dumplings, street corn and "yuca poutine" with yuca fries, chorizo, spicy gravy and Oaxaca cheese. David Gilmore will serve as executive chef and general manager.

Chango Rosa's full bar focuses on tequila and rum-based cocktails ($8 to $12) Jamie said, with Caribbean and Latin-influenced flavors like coconut, passion fruit, açaí and kiwi. The bar will also offer a special-edition Patrón tequila bottled exclusively for the restaurant. Bottled, canned and draft beers will feature Mexican brands as well as local breweries.

The restaurant's decor centers around a graffiti theme, with brightly colored spray paint designs adorning the walls. Street artist ARCY will complete an outdoor mural by the patio featuring the visages of three of Hartford's most famous faces: Mark Twain, Katharine Hepburn and Samuel Colt.

Kansas City-style barbecue has been the core of the McDonalds' business, since they first opened Bear's Smokehouse within Windsor's Bart's Drive-In & The Beanery Bistro in June 2013. They have quickly expanded their holdings in four years' time: in July 2014, Bear's opened a Hartford location on Arch Street, and moved its Windsor operation to the former Dale Drug Store on Poquonock Avenue by the end of that year. They also launched a smaller take-out and commissary space in South Windsor.

In October 2016, the team opened its flagship Bear's restaurant with a full bar at 25 Front Street, and converted the vacated space on Arch Street into Blind Pig Pizza Co., with wood-fired pizzas — many topped with its signature barbecue meats — and craft cocktails.

Prior to opening the pizzeria, the team went through months of research and development, going through "at least 15 different dough iterations" before settling on the current recipe, McDonald told The Courant in January. He said the process for Chango Rosa was similar.

"I bought like 15 books on street food, tacos, anything that had anything to do with [that]," he said, and the common theme among them was that fresh masa would make all the difference with items like tamales, pupusas and tortillas.

"Bear's is tried and true; we could replicate Bear's and be very successful doing that in other areas," Cheryl McDonald said. "But I think we've kind of become so entrenched and committed to Hartford, that looking for different opportunities to do within Hartford itself is where the focus has been."

Jamie McDonald and Tyler Anderson, the chef-owner of Millwright's in Simsbury, are also set to open Cook & The Bear, a craft barbecue concept, in West Hartford's Blue Back Square by the end of June.

Chango Rosa, 1 Union Place, Hartford, will be open Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bar remains open until midnight. 860-479-6662, facebook.com/ChangoRosaTacos.

This post has been updated to reflect the June 3 grand opening date.

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